Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Alternative Cable Channels

Alternative Cable Channels

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Introduction

The souring economy proved to be a big and fast-changing story for cable’s business networks in 2008.

Both CNBC and Fox Business Network had strong ratings growth and expanded programming, especially toward the end of the year when tightening credit emerged as an international crisis.

The enhanced attention was not without controversy, though. Some cable outlets were accused of hastening the stock market declines though their reporting.

On the Web, a beefed-up CNNMoney.com drew more viewers than CNBC.com or Foxbusiness.com1 despite the closing in 2004 of CNN’s own financial cable channel.

Key Players

The major players in cable business news are CNBC, Bloomberg TV and Fox Business Network. All are operations of major companies with other substantial interests, and each in some ways has a different model for how it fits into the larger media strategy of the company. CNBC has the largest television audience.

Bloomberg, an offshoot of the business news empire, has the most journalistic resources to draw on but operates the channel as a television extension of its data and online products. Fox Business, with the fewest resources, is still in its early stages of building the channel.

Cable TV Business News
Key Players at a Glance, 2008

CNBC Bloomberg TV Fox Business Network
Owner GE (NBC Universal) Bloomberg Media News Corp.
Launch Date April 1989 February 1994 October 2007
Website www.cnbc.com www.bloomberg.com www.foxbusiness.com
Headquarters Englewood Cliffs, N.J. New York New York
Other Bureaus 9 112 5
Year-End Households 2008 97 million 47 million* 44 million
Subscriber Fee per Month 2008 27 cents 4 cents 11 cents
Net Revenue 2008 $627.5 million $83.3 million $70.8 million
Total Expenses 2008 $277.4 milion $67.6 million $119 million
Profits 2008 $350 million $15.6 million ($48.2 million loss) expected to break even in three years
Median Age of Viewers 49.5 years 49.4 years N/A
Median Household Income of Viewers $141,800 $148,700 N/A
Strategic Partners Wall Street Journal Bloomberg news and data services Fox News Channel, Dow Jones
Key Management President – Mark Hoffman
Managing Editor – Tyler Mathisen
Executive Editor – Michael Clancy Managing Editor – John Meehan Chairmna & CEO – Roger Ailes
Senior Vice President – Neil Cavuto
Key On-Air Talent Jim Cramer
Erin Burnett
Maria Bartiromo
Carol Massar Neil Cavuto
Alexis Glick
Key Shows Squawk Box (6 a.m.)
Street Signs (2 p.m.) Mad Money (6 p.m.)
Morning Call ( 6 a.m.) In Focus (Noon) Money for Breakfast (6 a.m.) Happy Hour (5 p.m.) Cavuto Tonight (6 p.m.)

Sources: SNL Kagan, a division of SNL Financial LLC; 2008 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey (available online at http://www.mmrsurveys.com); Bloomberg Bureaus aggregated on November 4, 2008, from http://about.bloomberg.com/contactus/newsbureau.html; Other data from respective channel websites.
Notes: All 2008 figures are projections. Median Age refers to age of the head of the household viewing the channel. Times are Eastern.
* Figure does not include Bloomberg specialty terminals, which are counted separately from households receiving its cable television service

CNBC

The goliath of financial networks, CNBC, entered 2009 with a greater reach and estimated profitability than both its competitors. When the financial crisis escalated in September, CNBC ratings were 10 times those of its nearest rival, Fox Business.

CNBC set and reset a number of its own ratings records during the early days of the crisis. On the day after Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy, the channel averaged 488,000 viewers between 5 a.m. and 7 p.m.2 Traffic on its website, too, skyrocketed to nearly 15 million page views.3

By the time the year was over, CNBC was expected to earn more than $350 million in profit in 2008, up from $330 million in 2007, according to early-year estimates by SNL Kagan. Its reach had grown as well. The network was available in 97 million households, a slight increase from 2007 when the network reached 95 million.

The channel also took steps to enhance its brand online. It partnered with LinkedIn, a professional networking website, to allow CNBC to post its content on LinkedIn’s site, further exposing the business channel’s target clientele to its brand.4

Over the years, CNBC’s growth has been a result of attracting more viewers and acquiring a major rival.  Launched by NBC in 1989 (the first cable news channel, CNN, went on the air in 1980), the network merged with its rival, Financial News Network, the dominant business news channel, in 1991. In the years that followed, CNBC established a strong brand and lucrative audience following.

CNBC’s website reach appeared to sit between that of its competitors, Bloomberg.com and Foxbusiness.com. According to comScore Media Metrix, it drew 1.5 million unique visitors in September 2008, which was up nearly a million from the year before, and a 20% jump from the previous month.

Fox Business Network

News Corp.’s Fox Business Network struggled to compete with CNBC in 2008, the first full year of operation for the upstart business network. By July, Nielsen data indicated that FBN was averaging only one-tenth the prime-time audience of CNBC.5

Despite expanding its reach with new carrier agreements, FBN was available in less than half of the households that CNBC reaches: 44 million in 2008, compared to CNBC’s 97 million.6

Projections by SNL Kagan called for Fox Business Network to lose $48.2 million in 2008 and a total of $158.6 million between 2008 and 2010.7 It is not expected to make money until 2011.

Even News Corp.’s purchase of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, which is expected to eventually bring the network prestige and viewers, was little help during the year.  A prior agreement between Dow Jones and CNBC restricts Journal commentators to appearances on CNBC through 2012.8

However, there were some positive developments during the year.

Its audience peaked at an average of 81,000 viewers between 1 p.m. and 10 p.m. on September 15, in the midst of the financial crisis, suggesting that some viewers sought out its expertise during a time of big financial news.9

Fox Business Network scored a coup when it lured popular CNBC anchor Liz Claman. Claman had recently been praised in a Vanity Fair article that distinguished her from some other female financial anchors in the industry. For all the apparent emphasis at the channel on hiring attractive female hosts, Claman stood out for her talent and experience.10

It also reached an agreement for its audio feed to be simulcast on Sirius XM satellite radio, potentially attracting new viewers.

In October, FBN signed an agreement with U.S. Cable and Insight Communications, a large cable television operator, to expand its presence in more markets across the country. This deal added an additional 13 million households to FBN’s audience, bringing its total to 44 million.

News Corp.’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, was bullish on the network’s prospects. In September, he appeared on the channel for an interview with host Neil Cavuto and compared his launch of the network to his against-the-grain judgment in creating Fox News.11

A part of the Fox Television Group, the channel is the responsibility of Roger Ailes, the architect of the Fox News Channel and former president of CNBC. Fox News’s initial strategy was to appeal to “main street” instead of the Wall Street following of CNBC.

FBN’s website, Foxbusiness.com, trailed those of its rivals, but had some of the strongest gains in unique visitors during September. That month, according to comScore, Foxbusiness.com gained in unique visitors by 127% in a single month, ultimately attracting 1.2 million.

The channel’s website went live in 2007 as a preview to the channel. If the site is successful, News Corp. would own three premium business news websites in the U.S., the other two being Dow Jones’ WSJ.com and MarketWatch.com.

Bloomberg TV

The third major player in business cable news was Bloomberg. Better known among financial professionals for its related data service, Bloomberg TV changed management and announced a redesign of its Web site in 2008.

As of March 2008, Bloomberg TV reached 47 million U.S. households.

Former NBC News chief Andrew Lack was appointed Bloomberg’s CEO of multimedia in October 2008. According to some reports, Lack was brought in to strengthen Bloomberg’s cable television program in particular, which has sometimes been lost in the competitive drama between CNBC and Fox Business.12

The company’s president, Dan Doctoroff, said that Bloomberg.com would also be getting a major makeover early in 2009 with the goal of making it more user-friendly for consumers outside the world of high finance. He has hinted, too, that he is open to acquiring more media properties.

Bloomberg TV was launched in 1994 by Bloomberg, a financial information company founded by Michael Bloomberg before he became mayor or New York. It is available on television as well as computer monitors and other media. That specialty service, Bloomberg Terminal, costs $1,500 a month and is popular with finance professionals.

Bloomberg’s cable channel, wire service and other media products make up a small fraction of the company’s overall profits. According to one report, only 10% of Bloomberg’s $5.4 billion in revenue was derived from Bloomberg’s media holdings in 2008.13 The other 90% was largely derived from the terminals. This revenue stream may be cut short if the American recession continues to hit the financial sector. According to industry analyst Derek Baine, the demand for Bloomberg’s terminals will likely decline due to the layoffs on Wall Street.14

By early 2009, there were hints that Bloomberg’s media operations were facing challenges. In February, the company announced it would be making its first layoffs since Bloomberg LP was founded in 1981. The layoffs — about 100 — were chiefly from its U.S. television and radio staff, and included the cancellation of Bloomberg TV’s late-night program, “Night Talk.”

Bloomberg TV does not subscribe to Nielsen and its viewership is generally assumed to be small. But, the channel does attract an elite audience. The 2008 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey found that Bloomberg TV viewers – not including those subscribing to the computer service – have an average annual household income of $148,700, the highest of any cable network it measures.15

Although Bloomberg TV was somewhat below the radar compared with its two main rivals, its website drew more unique visitors than both cnbc.com and foxbusiness.com. In the month of September, according to comScore, Bloomberg.com drew 2.8 million unique visitors, which was up 50% from the month before.

The financial crisis of 2008

Americans were suddenly captivated by financial news in the fall of 2008 when Wall Street appeared to teeter on the brink of collapse.

Cable business networks responded with expanded coverage. CNBC kept its daytime anchors on the air from 8  to 11 p.m., and Fox Business Network did the same from 8 to 9 p.m. Bloomberg TV, which normally features live programming at the 6 p.m. hour on Sundays, had special reports throughout the day.

Bloomberg was particularly well positioned to cover the global ramifications of the crisis, with more than 2,000 reporters worldwide. Of these, 1,500 work for Bloomberg’s wire services and 800 work for its television programming.

Managing editor John Meehan approached the events from a positive standpoint, saying, “We have the opportunity to really expand the audience and invite other viewers who wouldn’t typically see us.”16

The network does not subscribe to Nielsen measurement services but, according to one of the company’s spokespersons, Bloomberg broke its own ratings record on September 15, when Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama appeared to discuss the financial markets.17

Starting in mid-September, CNBC was to see a number of its own ratings records broken and rebroken. On September 15, the day after investment firm Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, CNBC had its best single-day ratings since the day it reopened following the 9/11 attacks.

The channel averaged 488,000 viewers from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.  Among the shows that recorded their highest ratings ever that day were Mad Money with Jim Cramer and Fast Money. Also gaining from the events was CNBC’s website, which received nearly 15 million page views.

The following day, September 16, Brian Williams anchored The NBC Nightly News from CNBC’s studios in Englewood Cliffs, N. J., saying “We talked about being live from the New York Stock Exchange, Lehman Brothers — you can throw a rock at it from 30 Rock, that would’ve been easy — but this, to me, is the coverage of the American economy.”18

Broadcasting from NBC News’ sibling channel headquarters was something Williams had never done before.

CNBC had its best week following the Lehman collapse since the week of September 17, 2001, when the markets reopened after the 9/11 attacks. Seven years later, during three days of market turmoil in the week of September 15 the network averaged about 500,000 viewers a day during its business day programming hours of 5 a.m. to 7 p.m.

CNBC’s success during the crisis was coupled with controversy, however. Vanity Fair accused CNBC’s “trigger-happy” reporters of being complicit in Bear Stearns’ collapse. In early October, Jim Cramer, CNBC’s frenetic host of Mad Money, exhorted viewers on the Today Show to remove their money from the stock market for the next five years. Critics compared the advice to yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

Ratings for Fox Business improved markedly in September and October, when the channel’s viewership spiked high enough occasionally to be measured by Nielsen. For instance, on September 15, in the midst of the crisis, its audience peaked at an average of 81,000 viewers throughout the day.

The fledgling network’s success was based on the same basic formula adopted earlier by CNBC: it added live coverage during hours normally filled with paid programming.
During the weekend of September 26-28, for example, FBN went live when it normally would have had no original programming scheduled to cover Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s update on the bailout bill.

It is unclear whether the U.S. economy crisis will continue to lead to increased viewership for the business channels. But there are a few positive signs.

In November, after the nation’s financial woes lost some of the breaking-news quality, the channels still achieved new milestones in terms of audience. CNBC’s daytime programming had its best November ever. It averaged 390,000 viewers, up 36% from the previous November. And Fox Business, which still attracted audiences too small to be regularly reported by Nielsen, came close to drawing the same number of viewers on Election Night as did its rival, CNBC, according to Media Bistro’s TVNewser blog.19

The Fox Business Network added live weekend programming to its schedule in January 2009. In launching Your Questions, Your Money Live, every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., it joined Bloomberg TV as the second business cable channel to offer live weekend programming (CNBC had none as of March 2009).

An International Perspective

A handful of new cable channels — two with an international vantage point — struggled for a piece of the U.S. market.

BBC America

The British invasion of American cable television news is showing mixed results.

BBC America added new cable systems in 2008, significantly expanding its reach to all 212 U.S. cable markets and 62 million homes by the end of the year. However, its newscast geared to U.S. viewers, BBC World News America, averaged just 151,000 viewers at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and only 85,000 viewers within the desirable demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds.20

By contrast, Special Report (Fox News) averaged 1.67 million viewers in the third quarter of 2008 and The Situation Room (CNN) averaged 870,000 viewers in the same period.

BBC executives took steps in 2008 to boost the program’s ratings, including making an investment of $5.9 million in World News America.21

They limited anchor Matt Frei’s appearance to the network’s American show, BBC World News America, broadcast from Washington. This was done to distinguish the show from the flagship BBC World News broadcast. That program is also available in some American homes, on PBS stations, anchored from London by Mike Embley.

The news program also revamped its set in October. The new backdrop holds eight plasma television screens that display American landscapes.

BBC America is widely available on cable and satellite. The network, which was launched in 1998, is entertainment-focused, but does show BBC World News America, an hour-long news show at the 7 p.m. prime-time slot, and a rerun at 11 p.m. In the mornings, it broadcasts three hours of BBC World News from 6 to 9 a.m.

BBC World News (formerly called BBC World) is the name of the British 24-hour news channel that is the most widely available news channel in the world. However, in the US, where the market is already flooded with its own cable news channels, BBC World News has been unable to make significant inroads. The channel is carried on only a few cable systems, although some of its BBC News Bulletins are shown on over 200 PBS stations and on BBC America.

BBC World News America, the hour-long news program shown on BBC America, is also shown in its full length on BBC World News.

France 24

France 24, an English-language edition of a state-subsidized French news service, found itself embroiled in a serious political dispute in 2008.

In January 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy expressed annoyance at tax revenues being used to produce programming in a language other than French. He threatened to cut off public funding for the English and Arabic news services and insisted that the national channel use only the national language.

Canceling the English program would, of course, deal a blow to the station’s hopes of becoming an international network along the lines of the foreign versions of BBC and CNN. As it was, it was only available in the Washington and New York markets in the United States.

The dispute was still simmering in October when Sarkozy’s government bought out two media companies’ privately owned shares in France 24.

There were some sighs of relief among network executives in November, when France 24 was recognized as the top international news service of the year at the annual International Media Excellence Awards in London. Executives continued to make the case that canceling the English-language version and adding English subtitles to the French version would actually be less efficient than keeping things as they were.

Meanwhile, the network aired 12 hours of live U.S. election coverage in all three of its languages — French, Arabic and English – on Nov. 4.

As its fate was being debated, the channel took steps to reach a wider audience. In October, the network announced it was launching a mobile version, accessible on mobile devices through Actimagine’s Mobiclip.com platform.

The news channel, launched in 2006, was originally aimed at a French audience. But in 2007 it tried to challenge BBC World and CNN by launching the English-language version, which was made available to American audiences via cable and satellite.

At its launch, the channel had 390 employees worldwide and 180 journalists, but has since grown to well over 430 staff, including 200 journalists.

Current TV

In August 2008, the Al Gore-backed Current TV turned three years old.

The interactive cable television network continued to see the same steady, but quiet, success. According to SNL Kagan data, it was projected to be available in 53 million households by the end of 2008, up nearly 10 million from the year before.

It was also estimated to receive $63.5 million in license fee revenue, up significantly from $47.1 million the year before. It averages 11 cents per subscriber, as it did in 2007.

Gore, the former vice president and one of the founding partners of Current TV, remained involved in 2008. Its programming is geared toward the 18-to-34-year-old demographic, and features technology, fashion, the environment, spirituality and politics, among other topics. The format of the channel is unusual in that it consists of short programs called pods, some of which are user-generated.

Its Web site notes that Current TV is now distributed through Comcast, Time Warner, DirecTV, Dish Network, Sky and Virgin Media Cable.

During the 2008 presidential and vice-presidential debates, Current TV teamed up with Twitter, airing the debates while allowing viewers to post their comments and having them appear on the screen for all viewers to see.

Footnotes

1. Brian Steinberg, “CNN Gives Biz Sites Run for Their ‘Money’,” Advertising Age, March 3, 2008

2. Rebecca Dana, “CNBC Ratings Jump Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008

3. Mark Robichaux, “Market Dives, CNBC Thrives,” Multichannel News, September 22, 2008

4. “CNBC Gets Linked In,” CNBC press release, September 4, 2008

5. Howard Kurtz, “Business is Slow for Fox Channel,” Washington Post, July 26, 2008

6. Howard Kurtz, “Business is Slow for Fox Channel,” Washington Post, July 26, 2008

7. Ronald Grover, “The Uphill Battle at Fox Business Network,” BusinessWeek, October 9, 2008

8. Howard Kurtz, “Business is Slow for Fox Channel,” Washington Post, July 26, 2008

9. Brian Stelter and Jacques Steinberg, “Fox Business Ratings Emerge, for One Day,” New York Times, October 2, 2008

10. Suzanna Andrews, “Who Is Wall Street’s Queen B.?” Vanity Fair, November 2008

11. Steve Krakauer, “Murdoch Doubts NBC ‘Made Much Money’ From Olympics,” TV Newser, September 20, 2008

12. Jon Fine, “A Peek into the Plans at Bloomberg Media,” BusinessWeek, October 23, 2008

13. Jon Fine, “A Peek into the Plans at Bloomberg Media,” BusinessWeek, October 23, 2008

14. Personal communication with SNL Kagan Analyst Derek Baine, January 2009

15. 2008 Mendelsohn Affluent Survey (available online at http://www.mmrsurveys.com)

16. Steve Krakauer, “Bloomberg’s ‘Small Army Covering’ the Crisis,” TV Newser, September 15, 2008

17. Rebecca Dana, “CNBC Ratings Jump Amid Turmoil,” Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008

18. Meredith Bryan, “Big day in Englewood Cliffs,” New York Observer, September 16, 2008

19. Elizabeth Jensen, “BBC Newscast Shifts Lineup on U.S. Public TV Stations,” New York Times, October 7, 2008

20. Elizabeth Jensen, “BBC Newscast Shifts Lineup on U.S. Public TV Stations,” New York Times, October 7, 2008

21. Elizabeth Jensen, “BBC Newscast Shifts Lineup on U.S. Public TV Stations,” New York Times, October 7, 2008